The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Our Germophobic, Plastic-addicted Society

Recently saw this picture, and had to laugh, because you’d never see this today in the West.

Every sandwich, today, would be individually wrapped, at the least in plastic wrap, but probably with a hard plastic container as well.

We are a bunch of germophobes, but it serves us ill. When I was a child in Malaysia, there was a rule among the ex-pats. The kids who were kept from all contact with “local” germs, were sick as heck. (One friend had his toys boiled regularly. He was sick all the time.) Those of us who were allowed to have normal contact, had no more illnesses than the locals (less, because we were properly inoculated and so on.)

Meanwhile we have vast stretches of ocean which are clogged by plastic. Plastic is showing up in both marine and terrestrial wildlife, and making its way into our own food-chain.


The rule for all consumer goods, and indeed, all manufacturing, should be that if it doesn’t degrade, or the manufacturer doesn’t guarantee recycling, with a bond posted to ensure performance and lack of strategic bankruptcy, it doesn’t get made. In those rare (and they should be very rare), cases where as a society, we want to make an exception, waivers should be required, and they should be paid for: the cost should be multiple of the monetary damage they do by not being recyclable. (At least two times, and multiple because monetary damage is not the only damage.)

Add to this laws and enforcement of laws banning “planned obsolescence” and we might be well on our way to un-fucking our environment. Or, I suppose, we could continue to prioritize short-term profit, neurotic fear of germs, and convenience. I mean, who gives a shit if our children and grandchildren have a planetary environment which can support life at the worst, or an environment which is incredibly unhealthy (which plastic’s estrogenic effects have already created)?

(Note: I’m in the hospital (serious, but unlikely to kill me), so things like comment moderation may not happen until I’m out, or may be delayed. Likewise, typos and other errors are unlikely to be fixed.)

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  1. Jeff Wegerson

    Remember the peanut allergy epidemic in schools? It the space of a decade it went from zero to nuts (yes a pun) back to zero again. Now the advice is early exposure prevents later issues.

  2. Al

    Remember that every car that you see today, has about 200 pounds of plastic built into the recipe and 200 pounds is a lot of plastic straws.

  3. ponderer

    I would add that they should be recyclable at the point of sale or somewhere just as convenient. Even if that means adding in the shipping costs to return to Amazon. It won’t stop ocean dumping, but it would be good for everyone generally.

  4. I’m starting to come around to the notion that historians, if there is a history, will mark the introduction of plastic into the food chain as the beginning of the Anthropocene epoch. What we’re doing to the atmosphere can be mitigated, poisoning the food chain not so much.

    I keep telling people to let me know when they figure out how to drink oil, but we’re already eating it.

  5. Mike Hoskins

    Microbes are our friends. That’s why they decided to take over our bodies.
    Just think about it. You provide a vessel where massive sex orgies are going on constantly.
    All perspective, Host.

  6. S Brennan

    And if a nation, or a group of nations were to enforce the laws you advise Ian, their production facilities would be deemed “noncompetitive” by “financial markets” just as environmental rules in the west enabled foreign competition* to roll over them in the 1970-80-90-00-10’s.

    Of course, we could do as we do now and wait for all nations to agree to be ruled by one set of rules, [one presumes, capriciously imposed by a single hegemonic power]. But as we have seen recently, that will be when hell freezes over…or after a nuclear winter/dark-age…for those without ecclesiastical leanings.

    Now, I don’t have a problem with tariffs and other forms of NATIONAL protection, but then I don’t care if Mandos uses innuendo to infer I am a racist because, I don’t believe in the efficacy of open borders, in the past, they have produced, without exception, villainy. But in any case, you can’t both, ask for immediate relief to, what you perceive, [and I agree], is a life threatening problem and believe in the anarchy of “open borders”. Others too have “life threatening problems” and their concerns are shoved aside as somehow “racist” by our elite rulers and their legion of sycophantic minions.

    The consent of the affected plebs will not be forthcoming because, it hard to reason with someone after having their legitimate, life threatening concerns trivialized with a barrage of senseless ad hominems. And believe it or not Ian, the re-imposition of “gilded age” wage slavery through “open borders” is an existential threat to working class people. When today’s “left” and in the US, “Democrats” decided to force working people off the boat and impose autocratic rule through divisive tactics, they also decided that enlightened policies that require consent also be abandoned.


    *[For the, far too many to mention manufacturing idiots out there, many industrial products have almost no labor content, often far less than a penny per ton…environmental regs, no matter how reasonable, are often measured to be a 10-100 times higher].

  7. Willy

    Nobody puts their unwashed hands on my penguin. But if either hands or penguin are wrapped in plastic… maybe. I once ate at a high end Indian restaurant and got a backroom peek at the cooks. They looked a lot more Hispanic than Indian. You could tell who the chef was because he was the only one taste testing the curry using his fingers. Sorta spoiled the mood.

  8. bob mcmanus

    I don’t believe in the efficacy of open borders, in the past, they have produced, without exception, villainy.

    Ideally, borders are open for workers, but closed for capital and strategic commodities, if not most commodities. In this case, manufacturers should be dependent on locals/regionals to buy their products thereby incentivizing paying high wages to push up dommestic demand. Has worked to some degree, Bretton Woods era, current China.

    There is a lot of discussion in the cannabis community about the absurd plastic overpackaging of products.

  9. Marcus

    My German wife recently immigrated to the USA with me and has been disgusted by the lack of mindfulness here about waste. In Germany I could bring all of my beer bottles to the grocery store (or back to the Spati where I bought them) and get a refund, knowing that the bottles will be literally re-filled, re-labeled, and re-distributed. Plus public drinking, but I digress…

    Here, we have the mythical grand era of plastic recycling. Except plastics that get recycled basically get turned into another throwaway product, like one of those crappy plastic rugs. From my understanding, recycled plastic isn’t like a beer bottle – a milk jug can’t be turned into another milk jug, again and again and again. It gets turned into another piece of throwaway crap, and then enters the garbage-chain.

    My wife, Annika, has since started a “Plastic Free” group in our local town. They do activism at local businesses, trying to get them to remove disposable plastic items from their menu. Like getting rid of straws (or at least asking patrons if they actually want them, replacing throwaway plastic (or plastic-lined) cups with washable cups – that sort of thing. She’s a mover and shaker and has actually made a lot of leeway with businesses, with many of them changing their ways or at least trying to educate their patrons on alternatives (like cloth bags.)

    She also organized a plastic film festival that showed a number of films. One of them was “Plastic Ocean” which shows, from a macro view, the effect of plastic on our ocean. The most touching film, I thought, was “Albatross,” which gives an extremely intimate look at one species and how plastic scars every part of its lifecycle. Maybe something to watch while you’re laid up, Ian.

  10. gnokgnoh

    Ian, I hope you are okay and feeling better. Being in a hospital is an environment as antiseptic and unnatural as the inside of a styrofoam food container.

    @S Brennan, do you agree that companies should pay for the pollution and contamination of the environment caused by plastics and other packaging? If so, fantastic!

    In the meantime, there are huge numbers of community, non-profit, and political organizations advocating for a cleaner environment, simpler packaging, clean water, and clean air – air pollution and CO2 are by-products of plastic and fertilizer production from fossil fuels. These efforts have been hugely successful in, at the very minimum, getting manufacturers to export production to third and second-world countries. Now, many of them, such as China and India, are beginning to try and mitigate their pollution. The coop in my town works very hard to sell food with minimal packaging, many cities are banning the use of plastic bags, and many local businesses are recycling and re-purposing old equipment. Old Singer sewing machines are infinitely better than the new, plastic ones.

    We must move much, much faster, but most improvements have been from the ground up, by shifting public sentiment and the way that we live. There is hope, locally, and in local communities. Our goal is to evaporate the demand for the crap that is served us. Cynicism accomplishes little.

  11. S Brennan

    Yes gnokgnoh; please do update me on [as a % of total] how your “ground up” campaign is going. In the meantime let me laugh at the sentiment, since, it’s been around since 1970.

  12. gnokgnoh

    @S Brennan, it’s not a campaign, nor a sentiment, nor intended for your amusement. I’m not even sure what your “it” is that you find laughable. Are you arguing for or against environmental regs?

    Do you agree that companies should pay for the pollution and contamination of the environment caused by plastics and other packaging? Do you think that consumers should pay for it, which is what usually happens, if at all?

    More to the spirit of your post, if we stop most immigration, legal or otherwise, must we also stop most global movement of goods and capital? If so, do we manage to kill Lake Erie again, or do we force consumers to pay for those costly (10-100 times higher) environmental regs, because we don’t have to pay for them now. Will a company not forced to compete in the global marketplace be willing to abide by our nationalized environmental regs and pass those costs down to the consumer? Are you saying that by eliminating immigration and bringing all manufacturing back to our beloved shores that we can reduce plastics and other waste and pollution? Please connect the dots for me.

  13. Compound F

    Ian, you are a treasure.

    the social world

    wishes you the best.

  14. Herman

    I am glad you mentioned the issue of convenience. I have noticed that people are becoming even more obsessed with convenience to the point where any criticism of the current system is confronted with paeans to convenience. People don’t care how workers are abused in Amazon warehouses, how Uber and other gig economy companies ruined working conditions for millions of workers even leading to suicides among cab drivers or how producing their precious smartphones requires the socially and environmentally destructive mining of rare-earth metals. They just want their goods and services and they want them NOW!

    How on earth will we ever develop a environmentally sane society when so many people see convenience as one of the most important principles in their lives? I have seen adults throw temper tantrums when they find out their food order will take a few minutes longer than expected or when they cannot order something with a smartphone app. This is the population that will rise up and save us? And plenty of the people I am referring to claim to be environmentally-sensitive liberals and even socialists so it is not just a problem among conservative suburbanites driving around in SUVs and living in McMansions.

  15. nihil obstet

    The post really highlights our internal contradictions. We’re germ-phobic, avoiding microbes in ways that compromise our health’ at the same time that we’re addicted to plastic, exposing ourselves and our families to endocrine disruptors which compromise our health even worse.

  16. Z

    The proliferation of plastics is a by-product of capitalism and “free” trade agreements. It is a cheap, light weight, air tight way to package perishables. Without it you’d have to have more localization of businesses for perishables, glass recycling plants, delivery, etc. More jobs and more power for labor partly because the more labor intensive the transportation of goods, the more power that labor has over capital, to cut and/or control the supply lines to their profits.

    We proceed towards species extinction, asphyxiation and poison by plastic, due to the insanity of our rulers’ greed and our inability to combat it. We live in a finite world being driven towards its limits to sustain life by an insatiable emotion: greed. The only remedy for greed is fear, fear of losing what they already have. But there is such an imbalance of power that our rulers have no fear of us so there is nothing to check their greed. So, onwards towards the edge we march …


  17. Z

    Hope you get better, Ian. The world is more thoughtful place with you in it.


  18. Donna Curtis

    I hope you are feeling better Ian. I wish you a speedy recovery.

    As a side note: While you’re in the hospital keep your eyes open for plastic use. The hospitals in the US around my area are horrid. It seems like everything they use now comes in a small plastic wrap. All the bedpans are plastic and they throw them out after each patient is done with them. All the IV lines too. I have no idea what latex does to the environment but they go through those gloves like mad.

    I suspect US hospital costs would skyrocket even more for awhile were your plan put into action.

  19. scruff

    Do you agree that companies should pay for the pollution and contamination of the environment caused by plastics and other packaging? Do you think that consumers should pay for it, which is what usually happens, if at all?

    (Not S Brennan, but…)

    I don’t know that there is even a single company that could pay for its own pollution and contamination by plastics. These are substances that have “lives” of hundreds of years, perhaps thousands, and have the potential to negatively impact millions of organisms across many environments over that time. How could such a cost ever be accurately calculated, and more importantly, given that such costs are going to be outrageously high and come along with sufferings that go beyond economic costs, how could such behavior be ethically justified even if such an outrageously high financial cost could be paid in the first place?

  20. anon y'mouse

    if a single madman laboring with a whiteboard (ever see that Professor’s rant against the WhiteBoard? similar waste) in a tower set out to devise a system that was MORE wasteful of resources, he wouldn’t come close to the one we have now. trucking all of our stuff from thousands of miles away, or shipping it. everything disposable, and made of non-biodegrading materials, fibers and molecules of artificial materials spreading over the world, shipping chickens grown here to China to process for eating back here (when there is, no kidding, a processing plant in EVERY state already). who would set this up? it’s all wasteful, destructive nonsense and those of us who want a return to sanity are called “luddites”. you know, they HAD technology in the olden days, even from our earliest days as humans. a lot of it was quite complicated, specialized, etc. whole sets of tools for everything needed or wanted. the difference is that MOST of that was organic material that could return to its “home” once usefulness by humans had ended. if wanting a return to that makes one a luddite, i are one.

  21. zot23

    I hope you are on the mend and feeling better Ian, hospitals aren’t good vacation spots.

    Unfortunately, that logic about Malaysia and sickness isn’t sound. The claim is that the kids who had their toys boiled would get sicker due to less exposure to local micro flora/fauna, but it could just as easily be that the kids who got sicker had parents who then started boiling their toys to help control it. For all we know, they were much sicker before the boiling began. The problem being that hypothesis rests on a huge assumption we can’t prove (that the boiling preceeded the sicknesses.)

    I don’t disagree with what you are saying, but that example isn’t good science and doesn’t prove anything. If exposure to germs made us absolutely healthier, why have we stopped having plagues and rages of pestilence in society? Why not have unwashed doctors doing surgery in back alleys?

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